THE PARENTS: Debi Chen-Sloan, 47, and Emmett Sloan, 47, of Washington Township
THE CHILD: Kyra Ming-Xiao, 23 months, adopted February 19, 2019
MEANT-TO-BE MOMENT: Getting the adoption agency’s call on the anniversary of Debi’s father’s death. “It was kind of him watching out for us,” she says.
Debi and Emmett were prepared for a meltdown. Their 20-month-old daughter had lived in an orphanage since birth — hearing Mandarin, eating congee — until the day she emerged from a van, wearing a snug pink coat, and met the two eager, nervous strangers who would become her parents.
But that first night, in the hotel in Nanjing, Kyra was tranquil. She danced and fluttered her arms to the musical toy they’d brought. She didn’t cry. At one point, Debi turned to her husband and said, “Can you believe how chill she is?” Emmett agreed: “She’s really chill.”
Kyra, whose English then consisted of the words mama and papa, chirped back, “Chill!”
For the next six weeks, they got to know each other, and the country — visiting temples and parks, watching New Year’s lantern parades and Chinese line-dancing to Euro-pop music. Each morning, Debi and Emmett took Kyra to the hotel breakfast buffet and offered bites of new foods. She liked everything.
“By the third day, she refused to eat congee anymore,” Debi says.
Debi, whose father was born in mainland China, practiced her limited Mandarin: hello, goodbye, numbers from one to 10. The adoption finalization felt a bit anticlimactic: a visit to the U.S. embassy, a man behind a glass window asking a few perfunctory questions, a stack of paperwork that everyone had to stamp with their thumbprints in ink.
Then, a 30-hour odyssey — a plane from Nanjing, a bullet train to Hong Kong, a flight to Chicago, a connecting flight to Philly. “We were a hot mess when we got home; there were definitely baby meltdowns,” Debi recalls.
After 16 years of trying to conjure a child into their lives, Kyra’s presence felt surreal. “I’d wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m a mom. I’m a mom?’”
It was what Debi had always wanted, from the time she began babysitting at age 11. For Emmett, born in Northern Ireland and raised for part of his childhood in a Catholic group home and in foster care, parenting seemed like a way to fill the gaps in his own growing up. “Since I didn’t get to be with my family in a traditional way, that made me really want a family of my own.” Fostering or adopting was a way “to give something back,” he says.
The two met in London in the fall of 1996. Debi was doing temp jobs and working as a barmaid; Emmett was visiting the city and knew one of Debi’s flatmates. On their first date, a fair at Kew Gardens, Emmett won an arcade game, scoring a huge white teddy bear that Debi toted around the city all day.
“I cried my eyes out when I left to go to the airport,” Emmett recalls. Given their different countries of origin, the high cost of living in London, and the complicated logistics of work visas and job opportunities, they decided to settle in the United States and get married, choosing a Catholic church in Lancaster that reminded them of European cathedrals. Emmett was so nervous he dropped the ring on the altar and watched it bounce down the marble steps.
Then, for a decade and a half, they tried to start a family. “In my mind, we were going to have two biological kids and then adopt,” Debi says. But nature had other plans. Despite fertility treatments that included two rounds of IVF, and one pregnancy that ended in a miscarriage, they were unable to conceive and carry a baby to term.
They looked into adoption from China but were told the wait would be seven years, particularly as they hoped for a child under age 2. They were getting older; they’d been married nearly two decades.
So they took the remaining money in their adoption account and splurged on a three-week anniversary trip to Australia and New Zealand: snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, zip-lining, visiting Sidney, Melbourne, and Auckland. They returned at midnight on a Sunday. On Tuesday morning, Nov. 1, the one-year anniversary of Debi’s father’s death, the agency called: “We’ve matched you to a little girl.”
Shortly afterward, they got glimpses of their daughter, then named Ming-Xiao: a bright-eyed 17-month-old who giggled through one of the videos. Debi showed it to a friend who observed, “You can’t fake that. She’s a happy little girl.”
For Emmett, “having pictures helped make it real. It had been so long that it didn’t feel real. I was excited that it was finally happening, but at that point, still mostly nervous and scared of the unknown.”
They arrived in China on a Friday and met their daughter on Monday; they decided on her new first name, the Irish-derived Kyra, in the elevator on the way out of the hotel. Debi’s Chinese aunt had told her that Ming-Xiao, now Kyra’s middle name, refers to “the brightness of dawn” and can also mean “enlightened.”
The hard parts now are the obstacles in any parent’s path: sleep-starvation, toddler tantrums. When they brought Kyra home, she was petrified of their dogs, a wiener named Abby and a Pomeranian mix, Roxie; now she and Abby cuddle and nap together on the couch.
Kyra is sponging up English — “good girl, hello, goodbye,” and clearly understands much more than she can articulate. “The other day, I handed her a tissue, and she walked into the kitchen, opened the garbage can lid, and threw away the tissue,” Debi says. “I asked Emmett, ‘Did you teach her how to do that?’ He said, ‘No.’”